Bernie Sanders: A Path to Victory for the Working-Class?

by Alistair O’Gara

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has been one of the most charismatic and controversial politicians in the US ever since he launched his campaign for the Democratic nomination in 2016 with calls for a “political revolution against the Billionaire Class.”

His policies include breaking up the banks, free college tuition, Medicare for All, support of a Green New Deal, and many other hot progressive issues – denouncing Trump’s abuse of immigrants, defending abortion rights, LGBTQ+ equality, and advocating the extension of union rights. Furthermore he has long branded himself as a “democratic socialist,” identifying with the Scandinavian welfare state tradition, thus making him a rare sight in the American political landscape.

His repeated invocation of FDR and the New Deal, however, takes the edge off this ‘European’ socialism somewhat, and, though he is formally independent of the Democrats, he has supported every Democratic presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter in 1976. By the time of his election to Congress in 1990, Vermont’s Democratic Party establishment backed Sanders, and he has endeavored to support the Democratic party establishment by discouraging any real break from them.

In the primaries for the Democratic nomination up to Super Tuesday and the heavy loss to Biden in South Carolina, Sanders was in the lead with many seeing him as the candidate who can really shake things up, stand up to the “1%” and their enormous corporate power on behalf of the “99%” or even just a perfect opponent of Donald Trump.

Sanders politics are indeed quite shocking against the deep conservatism of US politics, and his record is is conspicuously cleaner for US progressives than the other candidates in the Democratic primaries. However, the picture advanced by the senator and his supporters does not square with Sanders’ record as a politician in its entirety, and this record should warn us of what a Sanders presidency would is reality turn out to be.

Fighting Big Business?

Sanders’ basic formula is to carry out needed reforms – a higher minimum wage, price controls on drugs, single-payer healthcare – all to be paid for by higher taxes on the wealthier strata of Americans. Certainly such policies, and even the discussion of them, would cause and have caused a large degree of fear in the many businesses and their owners who resent paying one cent extra in taxes. Of course, the ownership class also fears that, if Bernie and his supporters had Congressional power, they might go on to pass laws to make even bigger inroads into their profits.

The brutal truth, though, is that this scenario is nigh impossible as long as the representatives and senators are Democrats. The party is very far from being behind Sanders’ policies, because they represent the interests of the very businesses he talks about fighting, in however limited a way. If Sanders were to win the nomination – now unlikely – these Democratic lawmakers would work in congress to sabotage his agenda.

Some have argued that Sanders can be like Trump at the opposite end of the political spectrum and as candidate get Democrats in Congress to support him after nomination. Given that Trump was far from being the chosen candidate of the Republican hierarchy and they soon rallied behind Trump despite that, one might think this to be a possibility when it comes to Bernie Sanders lacking support.

This is is a reductionist view, however. The right-wing, white-supremacist culture of Trump and his mass base is keeping vulnerable Republicans afloat in their states. Any Republican politician who opposes Trump and his agenda can be easily denounced and alternative Republicans found who would attract more votes from Trump’s base, exceptions for Republicans like Romney proving the rule.

Bernie has no equivalent power he can use within the Democrats. His base simply does not compel or propel many lawmakers. The only foreseeable outcome of the Sanders presidency is a whole lot of rotten compromises or outright failures. In other words, we would see the tried and true policy of the Democrats that has been hurting the working-class for decades but even more disheartening after the hopes roused by a “democratic socialist.”

A Sanders presidency would be hindered even by a Democratic Congress, yes, and it adds to the fact that he faces other monumental obstacles despite his modest goals in the first place. To tackle American business interests through constitutional channels would require years and years of legal and financial struggles. Not only that, but his reforms don’t tackle the political-cultural power of those he is trying to fight and thus they would retain their most powerful weapons.

That’s not even considering the potential for a capital flight/strike that would threaten the jobs of many communities. In short Bernie is fighting an uphill battle against big business, but he does not even have the support from “his” party or electoral base to do so or to keep his feet planted and moving up that hill.

More serious still is his strong tendency towards protectionism – despite his assertion that “we are a nation of immigrants” he has several times voted in Congress to restrict visas for skilled workers. In 2003, he co-sponsored the L-1 Nonimmigrant Reform Act1 that would have barred corporations from hiring workers from abroad unless they certified that they had not displaced “a U.S. worker.” He has openly defended his alliances with protectionist Republicans. The social patriotism which underlies the talk about defending US jobs was clear back in 2001 in the terms in which he denounced Clinton’s 2001 Permanent Normalized Trade Relations (PNTR) with China:

“As the greatest democracy on Earth, we must ask why American companies are turning communist China into the new superpower of the 21st century? While Microsoft is ‘saving a dollar,’ it is helping undermine our economic and military security by gutting our manufacturing and technological infrastructure, and moving it lock, stock, and barrel to one of our major international rivals.”

There is nothing very socialist about this.

Record on Wars

As is always the case with reformist socialists, social democrats, and the like, the litmus test which shows the absence of genuine class politics is what they will do on the international arena. Sanders is regarded even by his followers as having a mixed record on military spending and foreign policy, and this is all too true. That is, as far as his voting records go. There is actually nothing “mixed” about it. As in all other aspects, he is very consistent. He has voted for many major wars of US imperialism.

Though in his youth he opposed the Vietnam War Sanders and voted against authorizing the First Gulf War in 1991, by the end of the 90’s had voted for:

  • The Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, which said; “It should be the policy of the United States to support efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq.”
  • Supported Bill Clinton’s intervention in Kosovo
  • Voted for sanctions on Iran and Libya

He also continued this his streak into the 2000’s by participating in the “war on terror” by voting for multiple war budgets and military force to respond to the alleged threat to US security interests. In fact he has accepted the “humanitarian” wars that the US has waged to remove enemy dictators enthusiastically.

Not only this, but he continually supports manufacturing new weapons and even building and stationing them in his state, such as is seen with the F-35 fighter jet. Even further, despite his anti-war speeches at the time, he did very little to stop and even harmed resistance to military contracts in his state of Vermont and even had anti-armaments activists arrested on multiple occasions2.

In 2002 Sanders also voted against going to Iraq in the first place (despite supporting it through other measures after it started and supporting previous US meddling in the region like the Iraq Liberation Act), and he has recently sponsored a bill to stop support for the Saudi war in Yemen. Proof of his mixed views it seems. However, a disturbing trend reveals itself in the way Sanders picks and chooses his opposition to war. Luckily, he sums up for us all what that trend is. The New York Times interviewed3 Sanders on policy and asked in what circumstance he would consider the use of military force. Sanders’ reply was summed up:

“Bernie’s first priority is to protect the American people. Military force is sometimes necessary, but always — always — as the last resort. And blustery threats of force can often signal weakness as much as strength, diminishing U.S. deterrence, credibility and security in the process. When Bernie is president, we will ensure that the United States pursues diplomacy over militarism to bring about peaceful, negotiated resolutions to conflicts around the world. If military force is necessary, Bernie will make sure he acts with appropriate congressional authorization, and only when he has determined that the benefits of military action outweigh the risks and costs.”

Sanders promises to engage in conflict only when it is pragmatic! Thus signaling, as he has done many times before, that he does not care for altering the fundamental balance of world power or the drive of the US to stand on top of world politics and economy. Sanders does not even break from the trend of being the world police and thus he does not break with previous Democratic presidents. He continues answering other, more specific NYT questions in the same spirit:

“Would you consider military force for a humanitarian intervention?”
Sanders’ Answer: Yes.

“Would you consider military force to pre-empt an Iranian or North Korean nuclear or missile test?” Sanders’ Answer: Yes.

“Would you agree to begin withdrawing American troops from the Korean peninsula?”
Sanders’s Answer: No, not immediately.

“If Russia continues on its current course in Ukraine and other former Soviet states, should the United States regard it as an adversary, or even an enemy?”
Sanders’ Answer: Yes.

In short, though today it is easy to appear less aggressive than Trump, there is little in his record to indicate that he would behave differently to his Democrat forbears in the White House who in turn behaved no differently to their Republican equivalents.

Reality of The Welfare State

America first, the calling card of this recent Trump presidency, almost hauntingly pervades Sanders’ own views. This is not to draw a reductive comparison, Sanders and Trump are certainly not in the same flagrantly racist category, but it is simply the state of all American politics, and we must point out that Sanders does not break from it.

Time and time again, in his own words, it’s the “American people” that Sanders fights for. Even if we generously believe he means the American working-class, his record seems to set the bar of working-class interests low; at simply having a job, a decent wage, and welfare. In chasing these goals Sanders lies soundly with the national-imperial interests of the American state if need be. He has, is, and will sacrifice being anti-war for simply building a welfare state.

In the long-term analysis, the use of force is absolutely required to build this welfare state in America, as it exists now. Where do the multi-national corporations that Sanders wants to tax to pay for his new plans extract their wealth from? The specifics depend on the corporation in question, but generally it comes from exploiting the cheap natural resources and/or labor of foreign countries to make products to sell back home. The present example is of course products being manufactured in China, but there’s also the natural resources and agriculture of Central and South America, and the diamonds, gas, oil, and other natural resources of Africa, and so on all across the globe.

To ever defend such an unequal balance of power in favor of American or American-led companies, the American military4, and sometimes the private forces hired by these companies5 themselves, must be prepared to fight against the demands to nationalize their properties overseas or the workers trying to demand better conditions.

The oft-cited reason for going to war in American history is “to protect American citizens and interests,” so in a world where America has dug its “interests” deep into each and every piece of the globe, how are we to ever trust that Bernie Sanders could break this trend? Especially when he is alright bankrolling the US military when it suits him already as simply a senator protecting Vermont’s defense industry?

We cannot ignore the fact that if Sanders builds his welfare state off the back of these corporations that the greatest damage it does is it harms their revenue. On the reverse end it makes the welfare state entirely reliant on these corporations functioning as usual. He must give in to the trend of backing up American imperial interests to get his work done from an American-centric, non-working-class, and non-internationalist standpoint.

The expense that this imperial attitude has for the people of the world seems to be considered by Sanders when he speaks about the ferocity of American foreign policy and urges diplomacy first, but it is ultimately secondary in the final decision. After all, capitalist diplomacy is really only as good as the dagger the statesman holds while engaging in it.

Sanders’ support for war and his implicit support for corporations’ actions abroad to build their wealth is not indicative of a man who wishes to express solidarity with the worldwide working-class. He consequently shows a lack of commitment to fighting for all kinds of oppressed people whenever it suits politics.

Sanders’ support for war is not ambivalent at all; it is clearly a calculated continuation of Teddy Roosevelt, Wilson, FDR, LBJ, and Obama, projecting America as a morally upright and “shining city on a hill,” whilst bombing the hell out of anyone who begs to differ. Quite pretty, well respected, clean, and free of all disorder, but above everyone else nonetheless.

Sanders of the 99% or Sanders the Democrat?

Many supporters of Sanders claim that he stands outside of the Democratic Party or is sufficiently vibrant enough to shake up the “establishment.” Why then does he stand before us now as a Democratic presidential candidate? The Democrats have long since claimed to be fighting for the poorer sections of American society in vague terms, and in recent memory they tried to insert their leadership into the Occupy protests. It is no surprise, therefore, that Sanders would run as a Democrat for president as his campaign builds itself on the exact same thing, vague formulas and fundamentally non-working-class leadership of the middle and working-classes expressed in the Democratic party’s electorate.

Sanders has a social-democratic platform for reforms that many in the Democratic Party consider radical like Medicare For All or The Green New Deal, and he stirs up support that isn’t as typically loyal to the Democratic Party, instead supporting primarily for Sanders himself and his platform. His campaign has even energized many younger voters, a key group of support in the trajectory of society as a whole (if not necessarily a reliable voting group).

Despite his crashing onto the electoral scene as an anti-establishment candidate, his aforementioned platform of reforms, and being the longest-standing independent in the senate, why does he vote with Democrats and their interests 98% (99%!) of the time? Why did he support the Clinton consensus on war? For the same reason he is now a Democratic candidate for president. As a former president of the Democratic National Committee said- Bernie is really “a liberal Democrat.”

In the end it’s because his strategy for implementing his formula is one built on speaking to broad populism to build electoral power. Thus, Sanders becomes entirely reliant on the politics of respectability. He must build himself and his movement to be fundamentally for American patriotism, and he has no way to stand on principle against most of his contemporaries because of the two-party system.

That is, he must seek the support of the Democrats to get any of his policies through or even to support his potential presidency. If he could not do those things, he would be forced into obscurity as one of the many failed Democratic politicians, or he would be forced to face the failures of relying on running for elections in the United States.

The Problems of Sanders…

… are the Problems of the System.

Specifically, the capitalist system, from its profit-thirsty companies to its hawkish regimes and lukewarm liberal democracy. Sanders must charge headfirst into the most powerful financial interests on the globe with very little support from the congress he stakes his strategy on, but his movement is based on building electoral networks and not a militant working-class, so it is likely he will fail. Sanders is forced, by virtue of the positions he has been in and the position he is running for, to prioritize “his” working-class above all others.

All of his issues, and of course the great strength of the Biden6 supporters in the Democratic Party, will lead Sanders to failure in the primary. In this, he will be forced to concede to Biden and betray his own working-class supporters that see him as an independent, anti-establishment candidate. To these people, we can only extend our understanding and support in their realization that the reforms many of us desperately need will not be coming.

We must understand as a working-class that these are hardly problems that can be solved by standing inside the American political system and talking about fighting for the 99%, much less so by channeling support into the campaign of a single man who’s strategy consists of doing exactly that.

For us, for all revolutionaries, and for all people seeking to bring a real change to the world, we cannot be content to stand behind Sanders and the Democrats. Instead, we must learn from Sanders’ failure to achieve a victory within the electoral system in either of his two campaigns. We should and must create a party of and for the working-class that can structure itself on militant support; that is capable of fighting on the streets, in the workplaces, and in the communities of the racially oppressed, in defense of the working-class at home and abroad.

This party should not be primarily built to run for elections, especially since winning electoral power in the US is such a fools’ errand – with its undemocratic state and federal systems, its voter suppression aimed at the black, latinx, and the poorest layers of the population, the two-party monopoly on power, and the general impossibility of defeating bourgeois politicians and structures within their own playing field. This party should instead embed itself in the labor movement in order to:

• Move into, defend, and lead its unions in the fight for the right to organize

• Take up and direct an action program of burning needs of the working population and those with no or insecure jobs

• Take up, direct, and unite its demands against the many forms of racism, social oppression and repression

And ultimately within the process of building an independent workers party, revolutionaries will and must seek to win it to an overall revolutionary program to topple the systems that Sanders only dreams of mitigating.

This demand, this task, is not as impossible as it may seem, either. The Sanders campaign with all the shackles it placed on itself still raised the largest amount of money of any Democratic candidate and drew in thousands of committed activists and supporters. The working-class and the youth possess an incredible power to organize a campaign, so it follows that we can also come together to build something that’s worth building in the first place.

The money that was raised? That could be used not simply for election ads but for getting stuck into organizing and supporting strikes. The networks that were built? We could use them to respond easily to right-wing threats in our communities or mobilize to protest government actions that harm the working-class. The links with union membership shown by the campaign? That’s the first step of moving into the unions already underway and breaking them from their subordination to the Democrats. The fundraising and canvassing done by the DSA? This could be put to the service of a working-class organization just as well or better than it could be used in support of an individual political campaign. The Sanders campaign shows us so much, both positive and negative, that we can learn from.

When Sanders eventually leaves the scene, the working-class movement does not need to be harmed by the loss or even his betrayal in favor of Biden if we make the choice ourselves that we will not accept Democratic Party leadership any longer. We must take power through and for ourselves, and that is the only way we will get the change the world desperately needs. 

So no, Bernie Sanders is not a path to victory for the working-class. What we need is a working-class party and a revolutionary socialist program.